Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Activist Alert: Independent People's Tribunal on Land Aquisition, Resource Grab and Operation Green Hunt

Whatever your feeling about the Maoists--or about Arundhati Roy's recent story in Outlook--it seems clear that this problem has reached the attention of the central government and urban elite in large part because there are all kinds of valuable resources in many of the the places where the Maoists are active. And I'm not talking about pristine streams, tiger habitats, or idyllic villages full of people living sustainably. I am not talking about trees or the stuff that grows on trees, but the stuff that lies under the trees-- the stuff you need if you want to make iron and steel and aluminum. The stuff India Inc. is dying to get it's hands on.  The stuff  that is required to sustain the unsustainable way of life many of us are living in Delhi and the other mega-cities.

What happens when government-backed corporations encounter people living on valuable resources? It's an old story and it usually ends badly for the people and the earth land they  inhabit.  In the past, governments from across the political spectrum justified destroying the land in the name of development.  But there's a problem: unsustainable development is...unsustainable, which means in the long run, or even the medium run, it is bad for everyone!  All those new cars you see on the road, those new shopping malls and the expensive stuff you see inside them?  A large part of all that is made from metals that were mined from places that used to be forests.

With or without Maoists, mining is a dirty, ugly business. We probably can't stop doing it completely--a modern sustainable, just society will require some metal, even if we use much less and recycle like we should.  But destroying forests, mining metal and running factories just to produce throw-away consumer goods for the richest of the rich is not helping anything.  It will result in jobs for a few years, maybe even decades, but in the end that road leads to nowhere but disaster--when oil prices spike, when wells and rivers run dry and the monsoons don't come, malls and big cars won't power our homes, they won't irrigate our fields!  Better to put people to work in industries that build things we really need: efficient, affordable housing, solar and wind power plants, water harvesting projects, etc. 

An alliance of civil society groups, including the Indian Youth Climate Network, is shining some light on this issue.  They are putting together an Independent People's Tribunal (IPT).   IPT's are a way for civil society groups to present an issue of public concern before an impartial and eminent group of jury members, whose report on the subject is useful in educating and informing and mobilizing public opinion.  Here is the basic information:

on Land Acquisition, Resource Grab and Operation Green Hunt 
9-11 April 2010, 
Speaker’s Hall, Constitution Club, Rafi Marg, New Delhi

For more information go here.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Earth Hour Guest Post: Delhi activist Nagraj Adve explains why he won't be turning out the lights this year

Earth Hour is upon us again. “Cities across the globe”, says an ad today in the Hindustan Times, “will switch off lights between 8.30 pm and 9.30 pm.” Millions across the world will doubtless join in. I won’t be among them. 

Don’t get me wrong. Taken by itself, I’m not against symbolic acts such as these. For one, they take issues like climate change,  sustainability, urban consumption, energy saving, etc. to a whole lot of people, young and old, some of whom may possibly not have engaged with these issues before. Actually participating in such an event helps many people engage even more deeply. Two, by being observed across the world, it hints at the worldwide nature of some of these problems and the recognition that these issues are being debated all over. 

Having said that, events such as these may give many the feeling that they are doing something to save the environment when actually the direness and urgency of the crises suggest that a lot more need to be done. When someone is having a heart attack, one does not take a Dispirin, we rush them to hospital and intervene to the degree necessary. Well, the Earth is having a heart attack. How has it been manifesting itself? In climate change.  In ongoing loss of species, at a rate so staggering that Edward Leakey and other folks refer to it as the 6th mass extinction of species in history (the fifth was when the dinosaurs were wiped out). In the loss of biodiversity. In peaking oil production, which is imminent. In declining groundwater, deepening across India. In stagnating food production. In polluted rivers. It has been having this multi-pronged heart attack for a while; some very respected folks talked about some aspects of it 20 years ago, some even earlier. And what are we doing 20 years later? Turning our lights out for an hour. 

The second thing that bothers me is that the Delhi government is actively involved in this. It promoted it last year. This year, the CM Sheila Dixit is inaugurating the main programme at India Gate. She heads the very government that is emitting tonnes of CO2 by spending crores on useless events like the Commonwealth Games, that has been cutting trees to widen roads for cars, and to build parking lots. The Indian government’s policy for two decades has been completely directed towards higher carbon emissions via consumption by the rich. 

Governments and elites tend to play up such symbolic events to hide the systemic nature of issues like climate change. By systemic I mean the system of industrial capitalism, which is at its core. Unless we take that head on, collectively, there’s no way that we are going to be able to deal with climate change or any of the other ecological crises it engenders. 

So I’m not saying turning your lights out is a bad thing. I’m saying one needs to do a lot, lot more. (And by that I mean us better-off; the poor are anyhow consuming less and emitting less CO2 than is their right.) At an individual or household level, doing more would mean identifying all the daily things that consume a lot of energy, water, etc. Taking the bus where possible instead of an auto or car, the train instead of flying. Speed is bad. Cutting out or minimizing the use of gadgets that consume high levels of electricity. It may make life more boring for a while but there are no shortcuts to cutting consumption. The elites promote shortcuts and call it energy efficiency; it does not work.

Doing more also means doing things collectively. Now, that is not easy in this fragmented world we live in. But there’s little option, as that is possibly the key way large social change happens. If we want the BRT bus corridor to extend beyond Moolchand, if you don’t want trees cut in your neighbourhood to make way for car parks, if we all want adequate water harvesting and cycle lanes, we need to get together and make sure it happens. And all these things are only a start if we want to intervene in large issues like climate change. Switching off one’s lights is nice, but we need to do a hell of a lot more. Urgently.

Nagraj Adve is an activist with Delhi Platform, a non-funded organization active on issues linked to global warming. Contact him at: nagraj.adve@gmail.com

Thursday, March 25, 2010

More Water: The Story of Bottled Water and a Photo Essay from National Geographic

I was just beginning a really interesting post on the Commonwealth Games--how much it's costing, what it's good for, that kind of thing, when I came down with a stomach bug! Nothing serious, but Yuck--and it's left my mind incapable of much original thought.  But never fear, I've got a solution:  since Monday was World Water Day, let me show you two things about water that you'll want to see.

Next, check out Annie Leonard's latest contribution to the Story of Stuff Project: The Story of Bottled Water.
Like The Story of Stuff and The Story of Cap and Trade, The Story of Bottled Water lays things out simply.  It is aimed at an American audience, and I'd like to see Leonard give India's plastic recycling industry a more thoughtful and sympathetic look than she does here, but if you're trying to produce something that runs just over 8 minutes, then I guess you have to make some hard calls.  All in all, it's worth watching.

Oh and speaking of water, I was recently reminded of the hack job that Open Magazine ran a couple months back.  They recycled press releases and sound bites from right wing American think tanks and well known climate skeptics and made a lot of outrageous claims.  I documented some of that here and some over on their site, here.  Anyway, one of the many bits of good news Open delivered was this: "Another total lie has been that the Sunderbans in Bangladesh are sinking on account of the rise in sea level."  The only problem is, that the sea level is rising--in fact, it just swallowed a small island in the Bay of Bengal

None of us want to think our children's future is in peril; climate deniers are selling a story we all want to believe in: don't worry, it will all be fine.   Even I want to believe that story--even I want to be able to say that to my children.  But the overwhelming amount of scientific evidence suggests we have a great deal to worry about--and that everything will not be fine, not for a very long time, even if we take strong action now.  And if we don't take strong action? Let's save that story for another day.

Monday, March 22, 2010

World Water Day Special: Delhi's Nallahs

Today is World Water Day, so we're bringing you a photo essay on the nallahs, or drains, that carry a mix of natural run-off, sewage, and industrial waste through the center of Delhi, and out into the Yamuna.
Something like 45 percent of Delhi's population is not connected to the municipal sewer system.  Many of Delh's slums, as well as urban villages such as Chirag Dilli, Shahpur Jat, and Kotla, dump at least some of their waste water and sewage straight into these nallahs.  On average, more than half of the sewage that pours into the Yamuna is untreated.
Though they have grown in size with Delhi's population, many nallahs were originally small, natural streams.  In spite of their smell, nallahs still look beautiful in many places. And the small temples you will find on the banks of many nallahs suggests a time when these areas were something other than what they are now.


In other places, nallahs are choked with trash.

Many colonies feel the answer to the problem is to simply cover the nallah.  Defense Colony is covering it's nallah right now.  There is a lot of money in this kind of project.  This nallah....

...used to looked like this:

Covered nallahs make room for roads, even parks.  This was once the site of a nallah:
Some worry that covered nallahs will be prone to blockages and water logging. Who cleans  plugged nallahs?  How do they do it? Others ask what will happen to all the people who live on the banks of the nallahs, if we cover them all. For some it would likely mean losing their homes.

  Others might find it an improvement.
Of course, simply covering the nallahs will not clean them!  I once found myself at a late-night party, drinking whiskey with a well known architect and urban planner.  I told him that a large park near my flat has built a small, low-tech facility that cleans water from the local nallah enough to use it for irrigation.  He said that was nice, but much more would be required. He went on to tell me emphatically that any effort to clean the nallahs with one or two high-tech, mega treatment plants would also fail, though efforts like this would no doubt put many happy contractors in a generous mood.  He suggested that the best solution would involve a long canal along the side of the Yamuna, with small treatment plants every few kilometers.  It would not look as impressive as a mega treatment plant, but it would be better suited to get the job done.  

Of course, we could have scrapped the Commonwealth Games and put all that money into a vastly expanded sewer system that might help us to reclaim our nallahs as urban green spaces.  Cycle paths could run along side cleaned-up nallahs.  But given the fact that Delhi is wasting something like half of our clean water, in spite of all those huge Delhi Jal Board pipes we've been seeing all over the place, this hardly seems likely. 

Most likely it will take a combination of small and large approaches to solve this problem. It is hard to imagine a solution to our water problems that does not involve the nallahs.    And without a solution to our water problems, far too many people will continue to die of diarrhea.

I live a hundred meters from a nallah, and sometimes in the summer, when the wind blows the wrong way, I fall asleep dreaming of sewer.  But I can't help it, I like nallahs.  Maybe it's because they are such a striking collision of nature and modernity.  Maybe it's because, when the wind is blowing the right way, there is nothing more beautiful in Delhi than a nallah, at the hour when the campfires come out.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

A Small Victory, Low-tech Water and the Problem with Kit Kats

We can all celebrate a small victory this week: the government is willing to talk "coolly" to opposition leaders about the nuclear liability bill.  According to The Hindu:
The government was forced to defer the introduction of the Bill in the Lok Sabha on Monday after firm opposition from the Left Parties, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and environmental organisations.  
It is certain the government will try again, probably in a few weeks, so it's terribly important to keep the heat on this one.  Certainly, Greenpeace deserves some credit here--they've got 55,000 signatures on their petition.  If you haven't signed a petition on this bill, please sign these two:
And if you need more information about why this is such a stupid, dangerous bill, you can start with what we wrote last week about it. 
Speaking of nuclear power: Coastal farmers battle nuclear plants. 

World Water Day is March 22. In honour of that, and the fact that we've been doing low-tech, greentech all week, here are some (mostly) low-tech water stories:
Modern rural ingenuity: Farmer invents and builds cheap check dams in Gujarat. Local water tables are rising. (Via Kabir at IYCN)
Anupam Mishra's TED Talk on the ancient ingenuity of water harvesting (via anon...)
In the don't believe everything you read category: this water pumping device looked too good to be true...as it turned out, it was.  (However, this pedal powered water pump looks like the real thing).
Still, water pumping isn't a solution by itself, since our water tables are falling: Vandana Shiva on Water Wisdom (via Kabir at IYCN)
Meanwhile, Delhi wastes half the water it gets!  And the migratory bird count is falling fast due to pollution in the Yamuna.

Finally, Greeenpeace tells us why we shouldn't eat Kit Kats.  That's not hard for me, since I never cared too much for Kit Kats, and I'm cutting down on my sugar lately anyway.  When I want a tasty snack, I like peanuts or popcorn, packed in recycled newspaper.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Low-Tech Greentech: What Thomas Friedman can learn from clotheslines and bicycles

Just the other night, I was at a party, getting my ear bent about the joys of globalization and how it would all make sense if I just read The World is Flat, by Thomas Friedman.  I haven't read the book, though I have read a review of it in The Hindu and another one in The San Francisco Chronicle.  I was too tired to argue, so I gave Mrs. Batti our super-secret "rescue me" signal.  She responded, gracefully as always, and I made my escape.

Had I not been so tired, or had I thought there was at least a two percent chance that I could influence this fellow's thinking on globalization even one tiny bit, then I might have talked to him about those reviews.  Or I might have engaged him in a discussion of Hot Flat and Crowded, the book Friedman wrote after The World is Flat.  In Hot Flat and Crowded, Friedman concedes that the world is facing huge environmental problems.  I didn't read that book either, but I did read some some really interesting reviews of it, including one by Bill McKibben in the New York Review of Books.  McKibben is not completely unsympathetic to Friedman, but he does question Friedman's assumption that the way to save the planet is first to re-make it into a greener version of an ever-growing, high-tech America:
[Friedman believes that] world is a growth machine and "nobody can turn it off." Everyone wants "an American style of life," and "their governments will not be able to deny" it to them. So the only option is to tinker with the American style of life to make it greener. Hence the longest soliloquy in the book, a hymn to the soon-to-be smart home, where the solar panel calls up to tell the "utility" when there's been a blackout, where the smart lights in your office are triggered by motion sensors, where you plug in your "Smart Card" ("sponsored by Visa and United Airlines Mileage Plus") into your Sun Ray computer terminal to start your workday. All this gear is so intelligent, in fact, that "when the sun is shining brightly and the wind is howling" (i.e., when your house is generating solar and wind power), your utility turns on your dryer to finish your laundry....Does it ever occur to him, in the grip of a fantasia like this, that if the sun is shining brightly, or the breeze is blowing steadily, you could dry your clothes on a $14 piece of rope strung off your back deck, or for that matter on a foldable rack in the apartment hallway? And that since most of the world already knows how to do it, we might be smarter moving in their direction instead of insisting that they buy into our entire high-technology suburban dream?
I have nothing against high-tech solutions to our problems.  I was pleased to read in The Hindu that an Indian American rocket scientist has just invented a really useful electrical device, though apart from being "just like a laptop of the power sector," I confess I'm still not sure exactly what the device is supposed to do, even after reading the article twice.  

But I have always argued that the world will be transformed though a mix of low-tech, traditional technologies and high-tech modern ones.  On the very same day that The Hindu announced the rocket scientist's electrical invention, they also ran a story about a Mr. Mansukbhai Jagani of Amreli district, Gujarat, who has invented a labour-saving, bicycle-powered alternative to the tractor for sowing seeds and applying fertilizer. Now that's something even I can understand!  I love this quote from the article about the invention:
According to Professor Anil Gupta, Vice Chairperson, Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, when we refer to India as a knowledge economy, we assume rural people will be employed only in the lowest value-adding activities and never as providers of knowledge ...“That is absurd. It is not only in modern and IT-intensive India that innovation drives people. It is driven by economic enterprise and is well supported by government policies and professionally-educated individuals. The latter [rural inventiveness] is the creation of necessity.
Mr. Thomas Friedman is no doubt right about a lot of things, and computerized houses may be part our future someday.  But I think we should all pay a bit more attention to other types of "greentech": clotheslines, bicycles, water coolers, and ceiling fans. The kind of things people are already using--and the kinds of things that don't require a degree in rocket science to invent or improve.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Greentech, Low-Tech: Water Coolers and Matkas

Delhi is warming up a bit faster than I expected this year, so it's time to update a post we ran a few months backs on the wonders of evaporative cooling.  Sometimes the best greentech is low-tech!  We've written before about the wonders of ceiling fans, hot water bottles, bicycles and animal-powered machines.  Today, we focus on evaporative cooling.  Instead of giving huge subsidies foreign nuclear power companies, why not figure out how to export some of these low-tech-greentech products to the US?  We won't have to ask the US to protect our companies from huge lawsuits, because this stuff is safe and simple.  And I'll bet we make it better and cheaper than anyone else in the world.

Water Coolers
Water coolers (also known "swamp coolers", "desert coolers" or just "evaporative coolers") are the first thing that comes to mind when we think of evaporative cooling. They use the power of evaporating water to give amazing comfort during the hot, dry months. Of course, if you live in a place where the humidity is high all the time, they won't work very well. But if you live anywhere with dry heat (think Delhi from April-June), then the water cooler will work wonders for you! Here in Delhi, even those people with AC in their house typically use the water cooler until the pre-monsoon humidity sets in.

Coolers are popular because they use 80 percent less electricity than an AC. Back when my family used an AC, we consumed 600-750 units (kwh) of electricity each month between April and August. Since we replaced our AC's with fans and water coolers three years ago, we have consumed an average of 300 units during those months. Now that's savings you can take to the bank! Of course during the wet months, a cooler is basically just a big fan, and we sweat a lot--I won't lie to you about that. But in Delhi, coolers work wonderfully well in April, May and at least part of June.

Coolers have another advantage from an environmental point of view: they contain no environmentally harmful gases, no radioactive materials.
Here you will find a wealth of information on this kind of cooling, including some very impressive mathematical equations relating to relative humidity. Please don't ask me to explain those, because I just can't do it, except to say what everyone with a cooler knows: the drier the air, the cooler the cooler!

Water coolers are based on technology that is thousands of years old, and the Americans have used them for over a hundred years, especially in the Southwest. However, coolers are not widely used in many other parts of the US that could benefit from them. The same is true for Europe. As the earth warms, this market will increase.  We need to be there, making our share of the profits.

While we are on the topic of evaporative cooling, it would be wrong to forget the humble matka. Because the clay is porous, matka's use the power of evaporation to cool your water without refrigeration, which means less opening and shutting of the fridge door. Also, they are not lined with unhealthy plastic, and they look nice, too!  These would surely be a best-seller in the US, if given half a chance--retro green low-tech.

There is money to be made here. Water coolers and matkas: just two more examples of Indian Green--Cheap and Best!

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Follow Up: "Climate Scrutiny", the BRAI BILL, the Commons, and Nuclear Subsidies

China is backing India's opposition to "scrutiny" of the non-binding pledges made at Copenhagen.  Interestingly, China appears on target to meet it's own emissions targets--it seems they are opposing "scrutiny" on principle, not because they won't make their targets.

It's bizarre to find the US trying to police this, since they've done nothing substantial to address their responsibility for nearly 30% of the carbon floating around in the air right now; they like to blame China without thinking about who buys the lion's share of the products China makes!  Many Americans--including some environmental leaders-- don't even want to mention their historic responsibility, much less do anything about it. I learned this when I visited the Huffington Report recently, where Patrick McCully, director of International Rivers, was saying, "Don't Mention the Climate Debt." There's a longer discussion that needs to be had regarding that, but I'm saving it for another day. To better understand the issues and history surrounding how we share the atmospheric commons, take a look at this short article in current issue of Frontline.

Speaking of the commons, here are a few links to follow up our recent guest post by Sabitha T P:
The Pirate Party is number 4 on this list.
If water isn't part of the commons, what is?  Find out about what Indian Youth Climate Network is doing for World Water Day.

Regarding the two stupid bills we wrote about on Tuesday, please don't forget to sign these petitions:

Monsanto admits it's seeds don't work (they actually want to sell us the new and improved variety!)
Interesting slide show on the BRAI Bill (thanks to Kabir for passing it on).

Brahma Chellaney writes in Mint about why the Nuclear Damage Bill is so bad (like us, he says "it constitutes a generous Indian state subsidy to foreign firms" and it "weakens nuclear safety").
One more thing to hate about this bill: in most cases, right to claim compensation is capped at 10 years...what?! We're not talking about traffic accidents, my friends--nuclear accidents often cause leaks of radioactive material, which can lead to cancer, and everyone knows that can take years to develop.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Horns and Helmets: Photos Prove We Need Legally Binding, Enforceable Climate Agreements

Don't forget to sign the on-line petitions against the BRAI Bill and the Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Bill.  Find out more here.

The Hindu ran a front page exclusive a week or so back, headlined: India stops U.S. attempt to sneak “scrutiny” into climate talks.   It sounded pretty good.  Unfortunately, the truth was not so impressive. But it was instructive. Let me explain.    

The Copenhagen fiasco basically set up a system where countries may voluntarily make commitments to do whatever they feel they can do.  These commitments are non-binding, and the extent to which countries choose to honor them is not even open to international "scrutiny." They are, however, open to the more ambiguous-sounding "consultations and analysis." Recently, the US had tried to substitute the "s" word for the term "consultations and analysis".The US backed off when India's Environment Minister Ramesh shot off an email to American negotiator Todd Stern.  

Now let me be clear: I love to see Todd Stern back off!  We took him to task way back in December, on the day we correctly predicted the outcome of Copenhagan talks. Here's what we said then:
US spokesperson Todd Stern is always saying obnoxious things about the developing world, suggesting WE are not doing enough.  For example, he says we won't get a "pass" this time, that "you've just got to do the math"...Americans like to "get tough" on abstract nouns.  They are always getting  tough on things like crime, "terror", immigration and drugs.   Stern's talk is part of his effort to prove America is ready to get tough on China and India...  
But the real problem here is that this is all an act.  The Americans want to look like they are getting tough on us.  We want to look like we are getting tough on them.  But nobody is likely to do very much because nobody has to!

That's why I'm going to say something that a lot of people won't like: at the end of the day, if we want to get anything done, we'll all need to accept words even stronger than "scrutiny"-- words like "legally binding" and "enforceable."  Of course, when it comes to carbon pollution, the US will have to cut much, much more, because they use much, much more--and they should pay for the share of historic pollution they've created. But at the very least, India will have to agree to reasonable cuts in emissions intensity  (explained here). 

Here is my simple, two-part part argument for why only legally binding, enforceable agreemets will work if we want to cut pollution.  You can sum it up with two words: horns and helmets.

Exhibit A: Horns 
In Delhi, some people love horns, some people hate them.  But we all hear a lot of them!  So an clever NGO has put together a great campaign of signs with slogans like these:  "Shut Up Honking...Even dogs don't bark without a reason...Horn blowing is a sickness..." These signs are smart and funny and kids like them.  There's only one problem.  They don't seem to stop anyone from blowing their horn! Conclusion: clever things that are not legally binding are not likely to work--at least not very quickly.

Exhibit B: Helmets
In Delhi, a very high percentage of motor cycle drivers wear helmets.  I would like to tell you they wear them because they believe in the safety benefits of the helmets.  But in most cases, this is not true.  How do I know? Well, because I've talk to a lot of people.  They say they wear a helmet to avoid being fined.  As additional proof, I submit to you these photos which demonstrate that people who are not required to wear helmets, such as women and children riding as passengers, typically do not wear them!  Now if the fathers and husbands riding these bikes believed in the life-saving properties of helmets, many of them would undoubtedly convince their wives and children to wear them.  But they don't. Conclusion: people are more likely to change their behavior when they are required to by legally binding, enforceable laws.

Summing up: legally binding, enforceable laws work, my friends!  Cool signs do not!

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Two Stupid Ideas: "The BRAI Bill" and "The Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Bill 2009"

On Sunday, when I wrote about the High Court's wrong-headed attack on Delhi's informal plastic recycling industry, I promised I'd soon tell you about two more stupid ideas. If you've been up at night worrying about what could be as bad as trying to shut down the industry that makes Delhi the de facto Recycling Capital of the World, never fear--your wait is over, because today I will explain it all to you simply.  And I will provide you with two simple things you can do to say no to stupidity! 

(By the way, if you are reading this from outside of India, I would remind you that these very stupid ideas are in large part being pushed by international industries and governments who are trying to do things in India that they would not be able to get away with doing in their home countries...not yet, at least. So take notice--it could be you next!)

1.  Stupid Idea Number 1: "The Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Bill 2009."
This is a really stupid bill because it provides huge subsidies to big corporations and it encourages irresponsible, unsafe behavior.

First, this bill limits the overall amount of liability for each nuclear accident in India to US $450 million or Rs 2100 crore.  This happens to be less than the courts awarded in the Bhopal disaster way back in 1989!  (For some perspective on how much damage large scale industrial accidents can cause in terms of lives and money, see our "Bhopal by the Numbers" post, which compares Bhopal with Chernobyl, Exxon-Valdez, Hiroshima and other horrible human-made disasters.)

But that's not all; the proposed nuclear bill limits the liability of the private companies who would operate nuclear plants in India to mere 500 crores--(about $110 million). In the case of a big accident, the Government of India would generously make up the difference between the 500 crore that the responsible company would be liable to pay and the 2100 crore overall limit--a very nice gift to the operators of faulty nuclear power plants. (The damage that exceeded the 2100 crore limit would be born, interest free, by the people and the environment of India for thousands of years).

But as hard as it might be to believe this, the bill gets better in terms of generosity--I mean stupidity!  This bill shields private foreign companies from any liability for selling us equipment that breaks or leaks.   US companies demanded this clause in the US-India nuclear deal, which isn't surprising because they seem to have a fair amount of trouble with leaky reactors back home.  The US government won't go forward without it.  HELLO!  Protecting irresponsible Indian companies is bad enough, but why would we agree to protect US companies like this?   Any company that makes something that breaks should be liable in a court of law for the damage caused.  By limiting liability so much, this bill effectively provides a massive state subsidy to foreign nuclear companies--and a slightly smaller one to local nuclear companies .  If we want to provide subsidies, let's subsidize our farmers-- or our own solar power industry!

Of course limiting liability is not just stupid because it's a give away huge corporations.  The real danger is that these subsidies shield nuclear power companies from risk--and by so doing, they encourage risk taking.  And when it comes to nuclear power, encouraging risky behavior is a colossally stupid idea.

This bill will probably pass, simply because the Americans want it to pass and we all know how badly the current government wants the nuclear deal to take affect. But that doesn't mean we have to like it. Protest stupidity!  Sign this on-line petition today.

Stupid Idea Number 2: Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India Bill, AKA "The BRAI Bill"
This is a really stupid bill because it is aims to shut down public debate on GM foods in India in a stupid and repressive way.  Most terrifying is Section 63, which proposes imprisonment and fines for anyone who “without evidence or scientific record misleads the public about safety of GM crops."  (For more on this bill and GM foods in general, see Tehelka's recent cover story on Bt Brinjal.)

Now this Section 63 got me pretty upset, so I went and looked for an expert opinion on the legal aspects of it. I decided to talk to my 9 year old son, because he's been studying for his end-of-year Fourth Standard SST exam, and he knows a lot about our "Rights and Responsibilities."  When I asked him, he said that "our right to express our opinions is definitely one of our Fundamental Rights."  Regarding the BRAI Bill, he replied that this bill sounds "unconstitutional...and stupid!" I have to agree. 

If the legal opinion of a 9 year old doesn't convince you, consider this: Monsanto officials will certainly not be prosecuted for admitting that their Bt Cotton is no longer effective against pests  in parts of Gujarat. After all, their study was conducted by trained scientists. But a Gujarati farm worker who questions the safety of Bt Cotton based on the fact that he has a rash from picking it could face stiff penalties if he doesn't commission a scientific study first.  THAT, my friends, is a TRULY STUPID IDEA, as I'm sure you will agree!

Say no to this stupid (and repressive) bill!  Sign this Greenpeace petition now!

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Why Let's Do It! Delhi Can't Solve this Court Ordered Crisis

I had planned to name this post, "Three Really Stupid Ideas," but I've decided instead to write about one really stupid idea and one pretty good idea that will almost certainly deliver less than it promises. As for the other two really stupid ideas, well, you'll just have to wait a few days for those.

The Delhi High Court ruled last week that local authorities must once again enforce a ruling the Supreme Court made back in 2000.  Though this ruling will affect other industries as well, the Indian Express makes it clear that it is aimed at plastic recyclers in particular.  I've been thinking a lot about the plastic recycling industry since I reviewed Of Poverty and Plastic and interviewed its author, Kaveri Gill, last month.  If previous experience is any guide, this ruling will fail to bring an end to plastic recycling.  It will, however, cause a great deal of needless hardship to people who have enough hardship already.

It is common knowledge that Delhi does an exceptionally poor job at managing it's solid waste.  There is litter everywhere, but more than that, there are large sections of the city where formal solid waste management and recycling systems are nonexistent.

We would literally be drowning in trash if it were not for the informal sector: the waste pickers, the kabadi wallas, the traders and the small recycling factories that do much of the work that the state takes responsibility for in most other countries. 

This is not a perfect system, but it can boast impressive achievements.  India recycles 60-80% of it's post-consumer plastic, as compared with 7% in Europe and 10% in China.  Most of this recycling takes place in Delhi, making our city the de facto recycling capital of the world. The benefits of all this recycling means less use of petroleum, but it also means that poor people all over the country have access to inexpensive plastic products: buckets, mugs, footwear, and more.  And the plastic recycling industry has created lakhs of jobs that would otherwise not exist.

It is true that the recycled plastic industry pollutes.  So does the new plastic industry, and so does burying plastic in the ground.  But three points should be made.  First, the government has never followed through on it's plans to relocate this industry in a systematic and sustainable manner.  If this industry must move, then a well-organized, humane approach would be the way to do it.  Second, many factory owners have made efforts to reduce their environmental impact. Sealing them up and scattering them even further from the center of Delhi will simply shift pollution to new areas--where things may be worse.    Third,  arbitrary and sudden government sweeps  like the ones that devastated this industry a decade ago are unlikely to end plastic recycling, but they are almost certain to cause enormous amounts of suffering in an industry that is already marginal and risky in the best of times.

Let's Do it! Delhi
Perhaps the justices of the High Court felt they could get away with such a drastic attack on the industry that helps keep Delhi as clean as it is because they've read about the Let's Do It! Delhi campaign, which aims to clean up Delhi in just one day on March 20.  A similar campaign worked in Estonia, organizers say!  Why not Delhi?

I'm sorry, but I think this is such a sweet idea.  In fact, Mrs. Batti has me and the kids signed up for some kind of clean up work on that day, and I'm really looking forward to it.  You should sign up, too!  But I have to confess that every time I hear the Delhi effort compared to the Estonian campaign, I find myself giggling uncontrollably!  Please, don't take this the wrong way!  I hate litter.  I don't litter-- I even pick up other people's litter sometimes, which, I might add, almost always embarrasses my children.  But I watched a video about what happened in Estonia, and I just have to break this to you: DELHI is NOT ESTONIA!

The Let's Do It! Estonia campaign was amazing.  In the weeks leading up to their one-day clean up drive, they used GPS gizmos to map out every pile of trash in the country.  The airwaves were flooded with free public service announcements featuring all kinds of famous Estonians.  On the day of the clean up, Estonia, a country of 1.3 million people, produced 50,000 volunteers, who cleaned up 10,000 tons of trash.  Wow!  Those guys are serious about cleanliness! So what if most of that trash went to landfills, not recycling centers--you really have to give them credit for doing an incredible job.

The Let's Do It! Delhi organizers are impressive and hard working.  They are doing a very good thing.  I support them.  But no matter how we try, we will not be able to clean up Delhi in one day.  To approach the level of civic involvement that the Estonians had, Let's Do It! Delhi would need to mobilize more than a half million volunteers on March 20.  To be successful, they would have already had to have mapped every trash pile in every slum and public park, and all the plastic floating in every nallah and river in the city. And, of course, the MCD would have to have laid the ground work for a trash collection system throughout Delhi so that those piles of trash wouldn't just reappear next month.  

Of course the fact that we will fail does not mean we should not try.  But there is too much irony here to go unspoken: this month, as people from all over Delhi come together to spend a day picking up litter, the courts have put at risk the livelihoods the lakhs of hard working men and women who spend all of their days collecting and recycling our trash for us. Let's do it better than this, Delhi!

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Guest Post: Some Uncommon Thoughts on the Commons

By Sabitha T P

The colours of Holi have settled down, unlike the dust in Delhi, being dug up furiously to somehow touch the finish-line before the Commonwealth Games to be held later this year. In some other parts of the country, however, the dust is not about to settle down in a hurry. I am referring to the sale of our hills to mining corporations, particularly in mineral-rich Central and Eastern India - Jharkhand, Orissa and Meghalaya for iron ore, bauxite and uranium mining. These mineral-rich, but cash-poor states answered the neo-liberal Indian state’s call to “open up” the resources with unpremeditated alacrity, and these state governments consider this the path to “development” (like the “development” of Delhi with all the construction activity). Let’s pause here. What are the ‘costs’ of such development? The costs are to be measured in environmental as well as human terms. And more fundamentally, what do we mean when we say the environment? Is it what is out there, somehow at a remove from us, or does it shape our very perceptions of the world and our place in it?

When I was reading about the furious mining activity that is going on as well as the proposed sale of large swathes of forest land in Orissa to international mining corporations (such as the U.K.-based Vedanta mining corporation and the South Korean company POSCO - whose stocks are now largely owned by American shareholders), I started asking the question – how can these state governments do this? How can they sell forests and hills to international corporations for their private profit even when there is large-scale resistance to the dispossession of the indigenous forest-dwellers and to the environmental implications on land and water? How can the state governments conduct these transactions as if they are merely financial, when livelihoods, lives, belief-systems of the tribals, as well as  our access to clean unpolluted water, unpolluted arable land and food security are at stake. These are very large stakes indeed. So then, the next question I asked was, if forests and hills and what is under the earth in these hills can be sold, who does this land belong to?

This brought me to the idea of the commons. These hills and forests are the commons. It belongs, at the same time, to all of us and none of us individually. What does it mean to say “the commons”? It is that which we may collectively own and use without taking anything away, since none of us individually has ownership of the commons. When Roman law divided things into Res Privatae (“private things”) that are individually owned and the owner has the right to possession of, Res Publicae (“public things”) that are state-owned – such as public institutions and public parks, and Res Communes (“things that are common to all”), it meant to create the category of the Commons as distinct from both private and public. Res Communes was comprised of those things that were extra patrimoiium (“incapable of being possessed”) and thus available to and necessary for all. Ergo, neither the individual nor the state has ownership of the commons. The environmental commons are land that is neither owned by an individual nor the state, water, and air. The steady enclosure of the commons by the British between the beginning of the eighteenth century and the end of the nineteenth, saw several protests by farmers, grazers, commoners, and well, poets. For a bit of a rest on this long common road, let us look at the poetry of John Clare, an eighteenth century British poet –

Love hearken the skylarks
Right up in the sky
The suns on the hedges
The bushes are dry
Thy slippers unsullied
May wander abroad
Grass up to the ancles
Is dry as the road

There’s the path if you chuse it
That wanders between
The wheat in the air
And the blossoming bean

Social historian J. M. Neeson reads these lines as a celebration of the commons. John Clare could absorb and take pleasure in the sight of the bushes, the bean and the hedges by the road because he had access to them since so much of the land was shared. John Clare’s nature poetry, she says, “is about this sharing, this access, this possession without ownership.” With the parliamentary enclosure of common lands, the villagers lost not just access to the land, but a way of perceiving the world and a way of life. John Clare writes in another poem, ‘The Mores’:

These paths are stopt – the rude philistines thrall
Is laid upon them and destroyed them all
Each little tyrant with his little sign
Shows where man claims where earth glows no more divine
But paths to freedom and to childhood dear
A board sticks up to notice ‘no road here’
And on the tree with ivy overhung
The hated sign by vulgar taste is hung
As tho the very birds should learn to know
When they go there they must no further go

These poems could very well be about the forcible taking away of any commons. Such alienation changes a very real way of life and smothers freedoms.

The commons are our collective heritage, nurturing and in turn, to be nurtured. However, instead of democratic and sustainable management of this common heritage, what we see in the sale of our hills and forests is not only the mutilation of the land (causing water contamination as well as a drastic fall in water table levels in the villages around the hills, thus affecting water security and farm yield), and the dispossession of the tribals for whom this land is their natural and cultural habitat; what we see in this sale of the commons for private profit is the very erosion of the idea of the Commons and a perversion of the principle of Greater Common Good. It is not only a political question of the original inhabitants’ right to land – which is more than land for them, it is their way of life, their gods – but also a question of the degradation of our environmental commons. Did we give our consent to the sale of the commons that belongs to all of us, sustaining us? Is it possible for the state to abdicate its role as a representative house and a protector of our inalienable rights, and instead turn predator on its citizens and their commons?

Did you know (I didn’t!) that last year’s Nobel Prize for Economics was shared by Elinor Ostrom who has been championing the cause of the commons?  Over decades Ostrom has studied and documented how different communities manage common resources – forests, grazing lands, water for irrigation, fishing – sustainably and equitably over long periods of time. Her award was seen by the Commons Movement as a debunking of the popular notion that private property has effectively prevented resources from being depleted or misused. It is indeed significant that the world’s most prestigious Economics prize was awarded to a champion of equitable and sustainable communal sharing of resources. Over the last few years commons movements have been gathering momentum, movements that argue and work for the protection of what we share together – from natural resources to public parks, to biodiversity and the internet. You can read about some of them (including the Pirate Party in Sweden – don’t we all want to support it!) here.

The tribals are communities who live by the principle of the commons - the only sustainable model of human inhabitation on earth - leaving the commons as they found it without taking anything away, leaving it intact for the future generations of passers-by. Their subsistence-level cultivation, collection of honey, and fishing can be considered largely unharmful, minimal intervention that is also at the same time protective of the commons. If the commons belong to you and me, we have the responsibility to safeguard it sustainably. Sustainable development can only be possible when it is founded on the principle of the commons. And we have much to learn from the shared ways of life and belief-systems of the indigenous forest dwellers. We owe not only the survival of the forests to their environmentally respectful ways of life, but also the hope of learning sustainability and an inherent respect for our environment from them, so that we too, like them, may leave unnoticeable footprints on the commons we are passing through and are passing on to our children and grandchildren.

Sabitha T P teaches English literature to undergraduate students in Delhi University.  Her poetry has appeared in many places, in both English and Malayalam.